Latin at Berkeley High

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Archived Q&A and Reviews


How is the Latin program at Berkeley High?

March 2011

Can anybody tell me about Latin classes at Berkeley High. I have heard it is a great spot for the more academically inclined students to meet. Is that true? What about the teachers? Are they good? Any other info about Latin? anon

The Latin program at BHS is excellent from what we've experienced. My daughter is a sophomore and has had Ms. Herndon for both years. Out of ALL of her classes at BHS, this is the largest (38 students), yet also the most well organized, managed, taught, etc. Expectations are high and the teacher prepares students brilliantly to meet them. What is lacking in many of other classes, namely students who want to be there and teachers who have the time or proclivity to give timely feedback, is here in the latin program. There's another teacher but my child hasn't had him. Latin fan

The Latin program at Berkeley High, anchored by the extraordinary Ms. Herndon, is fabulous. Both of my kids benefitted tremendously. You're right that it tends to attract the more academic students in the first place, the curriculum is strong enough to challenge them, and it includes considerable history, archaeology, too to make it quite interesting. heidi

My daughter graduated in 203, but I think there must still be the same Latin teachers at Berkeley High. She took four years of Latin and loved it. She went right into upper division Latin courses at UC and in fact is minoring in classics, thanks to the love of Latin instilled at BHS. Jenifer


Transferring to BHS Latin from another school

Sept 2004


I have some questions about Ms Herndon, one of the Latin teachers at BHS. I have read the past posts about her on this forum, and it looks like she is an excellent teacher and very well liked. My son has just transferred to BHS, and is enrolled in 2nd year Latin (which they call Latin 3; apparently each semester gets its own number). Ms. Herndon teaches a very different approach than the one he had last year; he'll probably be better off in Latin 2 (2nd semester, 1st yr), as he has covered different parts of the language, and I think less overall. That's fine; I'm all for appropriate placement, but what concerns me is this: His homework on the 2nd day instructed him to refer to his composition book from last year, which he didn\x92t have because he wasn\x92t there last year. It turns out that part of the material is in the textbook, and the rest is in the notes the students take in class, which they keep and refer to. Ms Herndon doesn\x92t give copies of the notes to transfer students; she expects them to borrow from another student and copy them. That seems like a lot to ask of a kid who already has enough work to adapt to a completely different approach, and unnecessary; easy enough for her to have a master copy and give copies to incoming kids. In class, she started right in where she left off, as if everyone in the class had been in her class last year. The reason these things concern me, besides the extra work, is that it doesn\x92t feel like my kid is being welcomed; it almost seems like he\x92s auditioning for a clique. I\x92m hoping that that\x92s not the case, and that it\x92s just an organizational glitch. My son is very good with languages, but he\x92s already stressed at starting a new school, and he\x92s getting discouraged about this. On the plus side, I spoke with Ms. Herndon about which level he should be in and she was friendly, and happy to talk to me. Also several students were eating lunch in her room, which looked like a sign of a supportive and available teacher.

So my question is, has anyone out there had a Latin transfer student at BHS, and how did it go? Anyone have input on support / caring / flexibility when there\x92s a problem of any kind?
Signed, concerned mom

Dear concerned mom,

I asked my son, who is a fourth year Latin student at BHS, what your son should do to access ''the notebook.'' Here is his response.

''To get the notes for the composition book, your son should either borrow a classmate's, or go in during lunch and get them out of the master book Ms. Herndon has in the classroom.''

My impression (and my son had Ms. Herndon for his first three years of Latin) is that the students in this class do bond, because it is such an interesting and rigorous class. Give your son some time to connect with some of the other kids in his classes (not only Latin) and to Ms. Herndon. We really like her a lot. She cares about her students, and she expects them to step up to the plate. I believe that this ultimately serves everyone well. Both of our Latin teachers are a treasure, and I believe it is well worth the effort to study Latin at BHS.

My son is not a clique-y kid, and he has done just fine in this class, and he has made some wonderful friends in this class. He has spent many a lunch hour in Ms. Herndon's classroom. It's just a good space to inhabit.

Good luck, and I am sure your son will soon be more comfortable.
appreciative Latin mom


Art Project for 3rd year students

Jan 2002


I would like to know if other parents of third-year Latin students are as unhappy as I am with the art project that they were assigned over winter break. I hear from my child that other students have not yet started it (this is the last day of the break), but my child does not do well under pressure and hence started early. So far we have made three trips for supplies (and must make at least one more); she has worked about fifteen hours and has finished perhaps a fifth of the project. My husband and I sent an e-mail to the teacher to ask for some clarification and recieved a reply which did give us the infromation we had requested, but the teacher seemed offended by our questioning the project.

I really don't understand what this assignment has to do with learning Latin. I am all for their learning history and culture, but this teaches as much Latin as making a papier-mache animal teaches about natural history. The teachers that I have questioned about art projects always reply that there are students who have different learning styles. But the question still remains: no matter what your learning style, what does this teach about LATIN? Does slaving over clay and cardboard give you some insight into grammar or vocabulary or literature? I do not find it encouraging that teachers bandy about buzz words like "learning style" without backing this up with real research into the meaning of the term.

First year Latin is also flawed, in my view, by a time-consuming mosaic project, but at least in that case a clear guideline of time limit (twenty hours) was provided. Jenifer

I have to say that I love the extra projects in the Latin classes, and I think my children have enjoyed them too. There's so much more to studying a language than just the grammer and vocabulary. This seems like such a plus - studying language and the culture by re-creating art that had so much meaning centuries ago, and is still around for us to see! I'm sorry that the student and parents were so unhappy with this project because to me it seems like icing on the cake, a reward for working so hard on the language. And, I'm sure this type of well-rounded approach contributes to the stellar reputation that the Latin program has at BHS. Wendy N.

My daughter is now in her 4th year in the Berkeley High Latin program. Last year, she too, was assigned the Roman Forum building project. She worked with a partner; they researched the building they were assigned, went down to the basement and found cardboard and styrofoam building materials and completed an adequate building replica, Roman arches and all. It was by no means perfect, nor a great work of art, but they learned a great deal in the process about Roman architecture, the history of the building, etc.

This summer, I had the pleasure of accompanying these same two BHS Latin students to Rome. They arose early every morning to beat the Roman heat and the hordes of tourists to the Forum ruins. My husband and I dispensed with the need for a tour guide. They knew every building, its history, when it was built, its purpose, the mythology, the politics behind the scenes-all very much alive to them.

The Latin program at Berkeley High is rich and rigorous. The teacher is experienced and skilled at getting her students excited about the language and the culture. Students will be lucky to have as inspiring an educational experience when they go on to college. Wendy B.

My daughter is a senior and has taken Latin since 9th grade. She did the same art projects, and I too thought them a little odd BUT my daughter just told me she adores Latin, adores translating the Aenid(Spell?) and has always liked her Latin teacher. This all bodes very well for college applications. With all the other problems at BHS, I dont think these Latin assignments are a big deal. My daughter shared them with a friend which helped to get them done. Mary

My child took Latin for four years and loved it. I was totally "clueless" about these projects and what Latin was all about. Latin is dry, esoteric, and sure, it's a dead language, but the teachers, first Ms. Herndon (who shows her enthusiasm in teaching Latin to the first and second year students), and then Ms. Morrison (who was equally enthusiastic in her own way--she reads Vergil in Latin for enjoyment!), and the students themselves, made me understand that Latin isn't just about learning to write and speak but about the evolution of western civilization and the rich culture that existed. Parents try to protect their children from feeling pressure, but high school is a time now to learn on their own how to cope with pressure, and "projects" are all about pressure. The question of whether slaving over clay and cardboard gives any insight into grammar or vocabulary begs an answer--Latin grammer and vocabulary involve a lot of rote memorization, not insight, which makes it very boring. The actual insight comes from re-creating the culture in which this language existed. For students who don't like Latin and the work involved, there is an attrition rate, but if your daughter has made it to third-year Latin she must like it because (a) she has good friends in the class, (b) she likes the subject matter, and/or (c) she suddenly feels very pressured but she can't see a way to get out of it.

In any event, I wouldn't worry about offending the teacher with your questions. Between Ms. Herndon and Ms. Morrison, there's probably 15 years' experience teaching Latin and they no doubt have had parents questioning their methods before, but they've found what works and these projects--mosaics and architecture--work. What do they have to do with the subject matter? Well, since Latin to many is boring, it's important to create a spark and context for students to view Latin and the civilization it cultivated without which western culture might possibly still exist in the dark ages. What more can be said--accept the pressure, get the assignment done (the project doesn't have to be perfect, just give it your best shot), and remember it's the students who get the most out of the class (or not), not the parents. It's easy to observe and criticize infrequently, and so much harder to teach and reach students day in, day out every academic year. So, I offer kudos to Ms. Herndon and Ms. Morrison for their trying so hard and for their successes (many of the students who took Latin for four years are in Ivy League schools, and other great colleges all over the country, way ahead of their college peers in their knowledge of western civilization and Latin). --jahlee

Latin class is not all about learning the language and only the language. In fact Latin is not spoken as the principle language of any country in the world today. Why take Latin then? There must be a good reason to do so, otherwise those of us who are taking 3rd year Latin would not have a classroom, literally, filled with students. My reason for starting Latin back in freshman year was because the teacher is one of the best teachers at Berkeley High and along with one other teacher, teaches one of the most interesting, challenging, and informative Latin programs in the country. The project you speak of is not just a useless busy task, but part of a class-wide collaboration to build a scale model of the Roman forum, which is definitely included under the title of "history and culture". Further, Latin students already do much book work, some actually do enjoy the chance to build a structure and not spend the night hunched over a text book. Building these buildings out of cardboard is not "slaving" work, only the builder can make it slave work. It may be time consuming and difficult, but it does give us perspective on the accomplishments of the Romans who built these buildings not out of cardboard but out of stone and marble. Each building also represents a time in history when many important things happened. An example would be my project, the Arch of Constantine. This arch was built during the reign of the Emperor Constantine to commemorate a military victory over a rival attempting to take over the state. We are not required to build a building for the sake of busy work. Making the model goes hand in hand with researching the method of construction and history behind the building, which we then share with the class in a presentation, hence benefiting everyone in the class. As far as the first year Latin class and the mosaic project; mosaics are an important part of Roman culture, because so much of what we know and see of it today was learned from mosaics. Also, mosaics were one of their principle art forms.

It saddens me that all students in 3rd year Latin are not gaining more than a headache from the class, however, the teacher's job is to teach the class, and that job is best left to her. A simple solution to any who have trouble dealing with this would be to drop the class and end the story there. Sincerely, Peter

I couldn't agree more with Jenifer re: art projects in Latin class. My son loves learning Latin and is engaged when, and only when, he is learning the language. While he did a bang-up job on the paper doll and the Greek dictionary projects in first year Latin, this year he has balked about doing anything more than language and ancient history study. Thus, he gets high marks on the language parts of the tests because he really studies in depth, yet he's probably going to get a C in the class because he isn't interested in learning about things like Greek columns, for instance (a study more apt for an art history class than for Latin class, as far as he's concerned). While I think the art assignments are excellent opportunities to learn about the culture of the ancient world, and many kids benefit greatly from this approach to learning, for some kids these are a blind alley and take away from the essence of learning Latin language and grammar. -anonymous

My daughter, a recent BHS grad, took four years of Latin. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Ms. Herndon and her Latin program. Not only do the students learn the material but her commitment, energy, and thoroughness make her a role model that few at Berkeley High can equal.

That said, I too, had problems with a Latin "art" project. For me it was the mosaic. Since my daughter can't draw at all there was no way she could have redrawn the picture she was given to do the mosaic. So she took the original and color copied it. She covered it with tracing paper so she could see the original and then started gluing. Even with this short cut it took hours and hours and hours. The mosaic was assigned over spring break, which meant gluing little pieces of colored paper to a bigger piece of paper took time away from studying for the AP chemistry test. This was a bit problematic for me. In fact, it seemed downright absurd.

I agree that learning about the art, history and culture is important, but frankly this project had nothing to do with art. It was kindergarten busywork

I'm also a bit perplexed by the response that these art projects were "icing on the cake." That assumes you *like* to do them. Actually there are many people who *don't*. When you can't do arts/crafts, being forced to do them isn't fun. I'm wondering how the parent of a student taking an art class would feel if the teacher assigned some geometry projects because some of the students have "different learning styles". I'll bet these wouldn't be viewed as "icing on the cake." My point is if these projects are given because they are fun and not for their content they should be voluntary or for extra credit and not part of the required work. Believe me, they weren't a "reward" for my daughter. And if the intent is to get the students to do a longer term project, why not give them a choice between an art project and an academic project, precisely because students have different learning styles. Helen

August 1999

In a nutshell, Latin was great, French - poor. I speak fluent French and have found the teaching to be ineffective at best; my daughter (10th grade next year) disliked her teacher so much she is dropping French. Latin, with Ms. Herndon, was her best teacher (of all teachers) and so my daughter signed up for a second year.

Re: language programs at BHS. I think the language department is fairly weak, though many of the individual teachers are pretty terriffic. The classes (esp Spanish) go slowly enough to keep the diversely skilled student group moderately together. Both my kids found it too slow. However, Latin is really great. My child is going into second year Latin. It's his favorite class. It's really tough and lots of fun: lots of memorizing, homework every night (never ever volumes) and several art projects. Quizzes, tests. Ms. Herndon, the year1-2 teacher is organized, clear & expectations are explicit. And she's delightful. My son plans to take all 4 years. He's going into Spanish 6 and will continue that as well. I had another child who graduated a few years ago who did 2 languages as well (4 years of Spanish and then French beginning in 11th grade.) The school makes it hard for kids who want to take 2 languages. You'll have to fight for it because the requirement to take Social Living in 10th grade makes it difficult. (they don't allow you to carry that many academic subjects) There are a few ways around this, but it's work. It's really a problem for kids who love language.

To Galen, I had a "bird's eye view" of Latin with Ms. Herndon through my daughter, a junior, who has taken Ms. Herndon's class since her freshman year; this year she'll go into AP Latin (she did a mosaic which has been on display at the North Berkeley library). My daughter loved Ms. Herndon who was the driving force in keeping students in Latin from freshman year on--once hooked, she kept you hooked. Let your daughter be surprised; she'll enjoy the class and get a lot out of it. When you have a great teacher like Ms. Herndon, as a parent, you shouldn't, nor do you need to, interfere unless, of course, your child is having great difficulty keeping up. However, I have no guidance to offer other than, in general for all her classes, keeping an eye on how much homework she has by asking her every day and the push to assure she keeps up good study habits (not watching TV, or talking on the phone while doing homework). As a parent, it is imperative to attend open house and meet all your daughter's teachers, or you will have nothing to guide you in guiding your daughter if you don't know what the teacher is like in personality and the style and content of teaching. Latin gets more difficult (Herndon does not teach AP Latin). There are so many derivatives from Latin in the English language, and it will further help in medicine and law. Latin is not a "dead" language as I once believed, but lives on in our daily use of English. My daughter also takes French (no complaints) and went to Brazil this year. She said that knowing some Latin helps in understanding English and the romance languages - Portuguese, French, Italian, Spanish. As AP courses, languages get much tougher, but the class size is smaller and it appears the teachers are pretty good. --JA

Latin-Latin is the best course at BHS. It is rigorous, multi-disciplinary, requires daily accountability from students, and is taught by an involved and interesting teacher. My son felt it was the only class where he learned anything in 9th grade. They study art, history, culture and politics as well as grammar. Distant second best is German - they will learn something but it's no challenge. Far, far down the list are French and Spanish-ask permission to complete two semesters per semester if you plan to take these.

My daughter, Rachel, took two years of Swahili at Berkeley High with a wonderful teacher, Chris Nyanda, from Kenya. Mrs. Nyanda is a an excellent teacher and a "den" mother to her students. Since she learned the language, Rachel has run into many East Africans or folks who have visited there and she has enjoyed speaking Swahili with them. She looks forward to visiting East Africa one day.

Latin is a lot of memory work. I don't know how my daughter ever did it. Very rigorous. She loves it. I have heard that German is a good choice because you get the same very dedicated teacher for every class; something familiar every year. I have heard that Latin is hardest, German in the middle, and French and Spanish easiest. Be careful about studying two languages. All foreign language AP classes are offered the same period.

REgarding the message on Latin, the most charming part of Latin 1-4, the first 4 semesters is the teacher. She is witty, charming and engaging. The kids love her and she is definitely the highlight at back to school nights. My son loves all the background, the history, and the grammar is cool. ( I get to help drill him for the many quizzes ). It is way more work than any other language due to the background, grammar, translations , etc., but there is a cool National Latin Club test in the spring that kids can compete in. My son hasn't taken any of the other languages at BHS, but now feels that Spanish would be a breeze. He has compared notes with his friends taking Latin at College Prep and Campolindo (in Moraga) and feels that he is getting the better Latin education. He plans on continuing with Latin for the next 2 years. What I like is that he is really into Roman history, which I teach.

re: taking two languages and the value of Latin: although social living is important, I signed a letter saying I would teach it at home and my daughter was excused from it (so she could take both Spanish and Latin in 10th grade). Latin continues to be wonderful in 11th grade. We went to Rome and Pompeii and our daughter was an able tour guide. Miss Morrison is as great as Ms. Herrndon.



Help with BHS Latin

Oct 1999


My daughter, also a 3rd-year Latin student, recommends either (1) looking in the Latin room every day at lunch until you find what days seniors are tutoring; or (2) asking Ms. Herndon how to hook up with a senior tutor.
j--k (10/99)

I wanted to reply about Latin tutors. My daughter is a senior tutor for Ms. Herndon and loves it. She is learning a lot by tutoring and learning about herself such as patience and that not everyone gets it on the first try. I highly recommend asking Ms. Herndon for some one to help.
Jan (11/99)

Thanks for publishing my help ad (for Latin tutor). Thank jk for the tip. She "finally" got someone to help her. The seniors didn't work for her after many lunch periods with them. Using another classmate's private tutor was the way she went. Hopefully this will work.